Rumbles in the jungle
One visit to Peru simply is not enough, decides Lucinda Baring
F you want a more intrepid holiday than your usual resort fare, then Peru has it all. But when trying to decide how to tackle an entire country in less than a fortnight, the options can seem rather daunting. In the end we choose to go with Inkaterra, a small chain of eco-hotels, for the ease of being met at every airport and the comfort of staying in three luxury boutique hotels.
What’s more, if you are at all concerned about the environment, rest assured: Inkaterra’s mission is to conserve Peru’s natural and cultural heritage and it is fully carbon-neutral, so you can ignore any jealous mutterings about the size of your carbon footprint.
First stop: the jungle. On arrival, we are briefed by the manager, Alejandro, about where everything is, what to do in case of a fire and what to do if you find a nasty spider clinging to your mosquito net (blow the whistle hanging in your room, apparently).
I assume this is just a friendly welcome to the Amazon’’ wind-up but am quickly put in my place. What did you expect? This is the jungle!’’ Oh, good. To prove his point, Alejandro marches me straight off in search of the nearest tarantula, which turns out to be a pink-footed one. Do not be fooled: there is nothing feminine or ballet-shoed about it. It is a black, hairy, ferocious-looking monster the size of my hand, the underside of whose pink foot I am invited to touch. Forget it: Alejandro has already shown me where its poisonous red fangs are and they are too close.
Spiders aside, Reserva Amazonica is spectacular. It’s set in 200ha of private land and we see enough wildlife in the first hour to make the oppressive 36C heat worth putting up with. During lunch we spot a scarlet macaw, so brightly coloured it seems cartoon-like, and a group of saddleback tamarins fooling around in the trees.
The short path back to our individual cabanas — rustic chic with white linen, tiled bathrooms, hammocks for reading and lit only by kerosene lamps — provides us with glimpses of a pygmy marmoset (the smallest monkey in the world), an aguti (a giant rat the size of a cat) and a red Amazon squirrel with a big bushy tail.
After lunch we go trekking off into the rainforest with our machete-wielding guide, ostensibly to see more wildlife but in reality to learn a lot about trees: selfpeeling ones that shed their bark to avoid being strangled by vines; monkey ladders that you can boil to cure tuberculosis; trees with roots up to 4m wide and others with roots like stilts on which they physically move to find more light.
Other excursions include the river at twilight, where fireflies appear and disappear like flickering candles and fishing bats swoop down looking for supper. Floating down the Amazon at night, the only things we see are the lights of the miners sifting through the riverbank in search of gold, and the red eyes of the caimans.
At dawn we paddle in a canoe around Lake Sandoval, a wildlife haven where we see cormorants, snakebirds, kingfishers and hoatzins (surely the ugliest bird in Peru, with claws on its wings to help it climb out of the water into the trees), huge butterflies with electric-blue wings and a howler monkey asleep in a tree.
As if that isn’t enough, our last morning takes us over seven swinging bridges 31m above the rainforest on the canopy walk. As the thunder rolls in, the toucans start calling, apparently because they want the rain to come and quench their thirst.
From the dense rainforest to the arid highlands of the Andes. The colder temperatures of the Sacred Valley are a welcome relief from the humidity and I revel in the cosiness of Urubamba Villas.
After a few sweaty and sleepless nights in the jungle, the high beds with big white duvets and hot-water bottles prove, unsurprisingly, conducive to sleep. Each villa is named after its maid (Sonia in our case), who provides simple but hearty Andean meals, the highlight of which is a breakfast of quinoa pancakes served in the garden surrounded by hummingbirds.
Equipped with car and driver, we visit the Andean village of Pisac, where the main attraction is the vibrant market on Thursdays and Sundays. Although it’s now sadly awash with tourists, the character and colour of the market remains undiminished and I come away with eight pairs of socks made from the softest alpaca wool.
Then a quick visit to Chinchero, a weaving community funded by a non-government organisation, and located 3750m above sea level, and Ollantaytambo, a village with an Inca ruin and a station, from which you can get a train to the daddy of all Inca ruins.
Machu Picchu, despite its status as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, is accessible only by train or on foot. The well-trodden Inca Trail can be completed in four days, two or even just one. But if you are too old for trekking or desperately pressed for time, you can catch the train straight to Aguas Calientes and then it’s a 25-minute bus journey to the top.
There is something shameful about being the only tourist under 80 not to have physically earned the right to see the ruins, but one distinct advantage is that you can arrive well before the hordes from the trail.
We catch the first bus at 5am, giving us Machu Picchu
Peep show: Bright-eyed youngsters beam a warm welcome; Peruvians are among the world’s most hospitable people
Sacred space: Cosy Urubamba Villas practically to ourselves. There is some debate as to whether Machu Picchu has been so over-photographed that when you see it with your own eyes it is a slight anticlimax. Not this time (my second). The sheer size of the place, hidden high up between the mountains and built 6000 years ago, is quite the most incredible feat of construction.
We take a guide who spends three hours explaining not only how the city was built (by using the natural erosion of the rocks and chipping away at the cracks before inserting metal poles for leverage) but why it was deserted.
There is something a bit sad about walking around a lost city, seeing the meticulous detail with which it was built and knowing it was never lived in for fear of an attack by Spaniards who never arrived.
Our hotel, Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo, is my favourite of the three Inkaterra properties we visit. Set deep in the valley, with the Urubamaba River flowing along one side, the place is a haven of nature and relaxation, surrounded by lush greenery and the sound of trickling water.
The atmosphere is dusky and candlelit, with bowls of eucalyptus around every corner and open fires in every bedroom, which you light yourself with the aid of a kind of gunpowder.
If you are a real relaxation junkie, take a private yoga class in the studio overlooking the river, followed by a massage in the spa, and finish with a session in the Aztec sauna, a little eucalyptus-lined igloo heated by rocks from the mountain.
Here the eco-projects include an orchid cultivation program in two private gardens, a visit to which teaches me about the tiny mosquito orchid, just 1cm wide, the umbrella orchid, which is protected by a green leaf overhead, and the little spider orchid, pale green and about half the size of a petit pois.
In the 12 days I spend in Peru I learn more about Andean cultures and traditions than I could have from any book or lecture. I learn that Andeans are superstitious people who worship the sun and the mountains and make offerings to Mother Earth to prevent her from eating them. I learn that they eat guinea pig (revoltingly dark and veiny) and drink chicha, a beer made from corn that tastes like cider.
I learn that once upon a time they stole bones from graveyards to use to cut the fat out of people’s bottoms, in order that they might become thinner. I learn that no matter how poor they might be, Peruvians are some of the most hospitable people on earth.
In 12 days we have crammed in a trip to the jungle, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, but in every place we were left wanting more. And that’s without spending any proper time in Lima and Cusco or visiting Lake Titicaca.
And that is what makes Peru so interesting: its diversity. You just have to keep going back, which is exactly what I intend to do. The Spectator
Peru and the Amazon feature on new South American guided itineraries with Tauck Culturious. The 12-day Peru and Amazon excursion goes from Lima to Cuzco and starts at $US5490 ($6640) a person twin share, including two internal flights, accommodation, meals, escorted touring and gratuities. Departures to October. More: 1300 766 566; www.traveltheworld.com.au.